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The Other Place

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The Other Place
Laurie Metcalf and Dennis Boutsikaris.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Theatre at its best winnows its way under your skin and into your heart. But it's rare, at least outside the catalog of Tom Stoppard, to find a work that also burrows so far into your brain that it controls your every thought and even your every breath. Sharr White's The Other Place, which just opened at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in an MCC production, attains this trifecta so subtly and so effortlessly, you won't realize how remarkable a play it truly is until it's completely taken you over from the inside out.

With the help of Joe Mantello, doing hands-down the best job of his directing career, and Laurie Metcalf unleashing a tour-de-force performance of domineering ferocity, your transformation from innocent theatregoer to blubbering onlooker does not take long. In fact, the whole evening requires only 85 minutes, by far the briskest and most rewarding hour and a half of the season to date.

The sensation of lost time colliding with memories that morph into tangible but unhealthy realities only strengthens the link between you and Juliana Smithton (Metcalf). She's an accomplished scientist who's escaped the lab and begun hawking a breakthrough new protein therapy that promises to slow or halt the progress of certain debilitating medical dementias. But during a well-oiled pitch to a conference hall full of male doctors in St. Thomas, she becomes so distracted by the sight of a young girl in a yellow string bikini in the audience that she breaks down physically and psychologically.

After returning to the states, she meets with incredulity from both her husband, Ian (Dennis Boutsikaris), and Doctor Teller (Aya Cash), who's treating her. Juliana insists on calling what happened an "episode," the first sign that she's developing the brain cancer that has already killed three other women in her family. And the unwillingness of anyone around her to accept her expert self-diagnosis enrages her, inflaming latent tensions present because Ian has filed for divorce in favor of Dr. Teller, and Juliana and Ian's daughter, Laurel, who ran away 10 years ago and has only begun calling again, is inadvertently exacerbating wounds Juliana hoped to heal.

The Other Place
Laurie Metcalf and Aya Cash.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

But the more Juliana reveals about herself, the more inconsistencies mount. Ian and Dr. Teller tell a very different story about their "affair," and Ian is not convinced that either Laurel or the lab assistant she ran away with are really able to reconnect as his wife claims. But Juliana has not made mistakes before and she knows it.

To give away much more would do a violent disservice to White, who's collected and ordered a series of fiery plot points to form the most engrossing new mystery of the season. (Only Stoppard's own Arcadia, now in revival on Broadway, tops it.) But the characters, and how White unveils them, are even more gripping than the story.

Juliana acquires her outer steel and her inner softness in a captivating series of early scenes that shifts her between St. Thomas and its clinical aftermath. Ian's internal struggle between bitter resentment and unconditional love powers huge sections of the show, casting Juliana's own struggles in horrifying relief. Even Cash creates a single arc of development across her every minute onstage astonishing because she, like the fourth cast member, John Schiappa, plays multiple roles. P> Despite that, and despite long stretches of potentially impenetrable medical dialogue, nothing is ever obtuse or confusing. Mantello's conducting of the script's symphonic shifting between countries, cities, and even states of mind, is masterful you never question where or when you are, or why you've arrived there, even though the rapid oscillating between locales and atmospheres is as intentionally jarring for you as it becomes for Juliana. With the help of Justin Townsend's lighting, which always accents Eugene Lee's set (a wall comprising dozens of empty picture frames) to handsome but unsettling effect, the real, the false, and the in-between cohabit with natural grace.

Boutsikaris fashions an astute portrait of a frustrated but affectionate man facing an apparently insurmountable challenge. His screams ooze with caresses and his most sorrowful protestations and revelations with joy, and unquenchable loss permeates even his sincerest proclamations of love. Juliana has forced Ian to live on every level, and Boutsikaris inhabits them all with touching aplomb. Schiappa is underutilized in his catch-all role, but Cash is excellent as the front-line forces guarding against Juliana's external attacks, particularly in a late, heart-stopping confrontation that charts the impact of Juliana's crusade on the real world.

Metcalf tops them all, equally superb as Juliana whether businesslike and broken. She applies layers of desperation to simple scenes, and builds intricate webs of need that tangle and reform as events unfold. Every moment she ignites is unforgettable: her first pleading conversation with Laurel, her dual-raging against Ian and Dr. Teller as they struggle to diagnose her episode, and her headfirst dive into resignation when, after searching for it so long, she finally discovers the answer she's long sought. Metcalf's Juliana is by turns supple, astringent, obtuse, and giving everything but false.

Nothing, however, surpasses the climactic scene in which Juliana returns after a long absence to "the other place," the Cape Cod weekend home that has factored so prominently in her life. What she discovers there and what she must confront, for the first time on terms other than her own, drives Juliana to new depths of despair, and both Metcalf and White's scripts to new, soul-scraping heights. Juliana's experience is at once inconceivable and real, and a profoundly moving testament to the humanity within each of us that cannot be extinguished.

This is the crowning scene, and perhaps the strongest proof that White, who has not had another play produced in New York, is a writer who must be watched. But like Juliana, he couldn't do it alone. With the help of Mantello, Metcalf, and everyone else involved, The Other Place takes you to another place: that transcendent level you can only reach in the theatre when the heart, mind, nerves, and soul operate in perfect concert.


The Other Place
Through April 24
Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street between Bleecker and Bedford Streets
Tickets online and current performance schedule: www.ticketcentral.com